If it was not good,
it was true; if it was not artistic, it was sincere; if it was in bad
taste, it was on the side of life.
-- Henry Miller (on his Sexus, to Lawrence
2. On watching
Henry Miller (and George Orwell)
I am still paying back my walk of over two weeks ago, so I
am still not
feeling very well. (But it may be improving some.)
Henry Miller (and George Orwell)
I did not watch or read
Miller a long time, and cannot find any
of his books, which is odd, since I did have several of his works. But
I read him mostly when I was around 30, and not much or at all
That is a bit odd, because
I liked him. It is true that I am not very much of a literature man, comparatively
speaking, at least, since I did read most of "the great works". But
then again, I am mostly interested in the truth, and that is not what
literature gives one, at least not directly, though indeed most of
science also does not - for scientific literature, as a rule, either is
not true or else is true but also far removed from ordinary reality.
So let me write something
about Miller, whom I also did not write about in Nederlog, except once,
Favourite Books & Authors, where I mentioned that his Tropic
of Cancer, Sexus and The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch
are among my favourite books.
To start with, Henry Miller,
who lived from 1891-1980, is an exception in several ways, and was an
exceptional man. That he was an exceptional man will be illustrated
below, and that he was an exception I will do here by listing some
marks that distinguish him from most other writers:
- He was from a working
class background, with only a few years of high school.
- He did not have any
evident literary talent as a boy or young man.
- In a solid sense, he got
pushed into literature by his second wife.
- He did not publish
anything significant until in middle forties, when he lived in Paris.
- He did no regular work
since his early thirties, and never any since.
- He had very litttle
money until he was in his early seventies, mostly because
- until 1964 almost all
his work was forbidden as pornography.
- His only subject is
himself: he wrote about his life, with very little discrepancies from
- He was not accepted as a
great writer during his life, except by some who were known as great
writers, mostly because of what many saw as pornography.
- He is not accepted as a
great writer now, again with some exceptions (a few more than during
his life, perhaps).
- Most who read him -
which are or at least were quite a lot - read him because of his
pornography, and not for other reasons.
I could mention more
distinctions from most writers, but this is a fair list.
Next, I did first read him
when I was 28, I think, in 1978, and was quite impressed, mostly
because he was honest about sex; because he was at times a great
writer; because he did write about something he knew best (himself);
and because he was a mystic.
Then again, I stoppoed
reading him after seven books or so, mostly because he had not edited
out enough; because I had my own life to live; because I was at that
time more interested in logic, science and philosophy; because I had
little energy because of M.E. and had to make choices; and because I
thought that he had mostly failed as a mystic.
2. On watching Henry Miller
Anyway... in fact I decided
yesterday to watch some Henry Miller, and that was mostly a pleasant
surprise. Here is what I saw, and it gets gradually better. I start
with what I consider to be the worst and the longest film, and I end
best film, so if you really want to hear/see Miller, I recommend you
start with the last/last but one of this section.
First I saw: "The
Henry Miller Odyssey (1969)" by Robert Snyder. This is
mainly disappointing, because although Miller talks quite a lot, he
doesn't say much. But what I did like were the pictures of Paris in
He did live 11 more years,
and I also think that by 1969 he had money -
for some five to eight years or so: He did not have much money
until he was in his 70ies. For it was only then, between 1961 and 1965,
that his books could be bought and sold freely, while Miller is from
Then I watched Snyder's
1974 "Henry Miller
- On Writing". That is better, but it seems to have only
two parts of 10 or 15 minutes - at least, I did not see more so far.
(The link is to part 1. There are more than two parts on
Next, a German film: "Big
Sur - Henry Millers Paradies", also with German
is from 1983, that is, 3 years after he had died.
This also is a bit
though Emil White was a special man, but then again this has stuff
about Esalen, which I never liked. Anyway, "Ein Produktion des
Bayerischen Rundfunks, 1983." That is, it is 30 years old. Which could
be seen, though this was
better than what I saw from Snyder.
Next, there is: Henry
Miller recalls and reflects 1/9. This is the first
part of an interview with Ben Grauer from 1956,
when Miller was 64
and lived in Big Sur, though the interview seems to have been made in
There are 9 parts, that I
have all heard. There is some overlap, and
there are some empty bits in it, and it is only sound, but this is the
I that I heard so far on Henry Miller.
Finally, a good
video with Miller: Henry
Asleep and Awake. This is by Tom Schiller, and Miller is
ca. 83, but still quite witty and alive, though he walks with a stick.
Anyway.... I liked what I saw.
If you tried either the last but one
(only sound) or the last (good video) and didn't like what you heard
or saw, then Miller is probably not for you.
But I like him, and I think that he was not appreciated as he should
been, not during his life, and not after it.
This judgement needs some explanations, to which I turn now, with the
help of George Orwell.
3. On Henry Miller (and George
Orwell got him fairly well
but not very well, though he knew him personally, albeit superficially.
is George Orwell, from an essay about Miller, "Inside the Whale",
published in the spring of 1940:
books are published by the Obelisk Press in Paris.
What will happen to the
Obelisk Press, now that war has broken
out and Jack Kahane, the
publisher, is dead, I do not know, but
at any rate the books are
still procurable. I earnestly counsel
anyone who has not done so to
read at least Tropic of Cancer.
With a little ingenuity, or by
paying a little over the published
price, you can get hold of it,
and even if parts of it disgust you, it
will stick in your memory. It
is also an 'important' book, in a
sense different from the sense
in which that word is generally
used. As a rule novels are
spoken of as 'important' when they
are either a 'terrible
indictment' of something or other or when
they introduce some technical
innovation. Neither of these ap-
plies to Tropic of Cancer.
Its importance is merely sympto-
matic. Here in my opinion is
the only imaginative prose writer
of the slightest value who has
appeared among the English-
speaking races for some years
past. Even if that is objected to as
an overstatement, it will
probably be admitted that Miller is a
writer out of the ordinary,
worth more than a single glance, and,
after all, he is a completely
negative, unconstructive, amoral
writer, a mere Jonah, a passive
accepter of evil, a sort of Whit-
man amongst the corpses.
Symptomatically, that is more
significant than the mere fact
that five thousand novels are pub-
lished in England every year
and four thousand ninehundred of
them are tripe. It is
demonstrative of the impossibility of any
major literature until the
world has shaken itself into its new
shape. (p. 577-8, "The
Collected Essays", etc. vol. 1/4)
These are the concluding
words of "Inside the Whale", which is a
longish essay by Orwell, published circa April 1940. It is 73 years old
this year, and I printed it so as to follow the pagination in the
Penguin paper back I have (which also was one of the first books I
at The Book Exchange,
namely on 8.viii.78.)
Incidentally, Orwell sins
against most of his own rules of style -
"procurable", "counsel", for example - but then these rules are not
very clever anyway.
Having meanwhile reread "Inside
the Whale", after 35 years, I found that Orwell makes a number of
mistakes, of which these are the most important:
- There was no
totalitarianism after the war, in the West
- Orwell doesn't
understand Miller's sense of 'accepting'
- Miller was not the man
of one book
But before discussing these
three mistakes, here is first an outline of "Inside the Whale":
It is in 3 sections, and covers 48
pages, as per the above, that is about 2/3rd of such a page. Only the
first and the third section are about Miller. The middle part is a
the general development of English literature in the twenty
years since the Great War.
This is to provide a sense
for Orwell's part III, which ends as cited above.
But I postpone my
discussion of Miller (and Orwell) till the next time: